An Insider's Guide to Washington’s San Juan Islands
The San Juan Islands, just off the northern coast of Washington state in the Salish Sea, represent the Pacific Northwest in all its glory — abundant wildlife, lush landscapes, friendly fishing villages and stunning water views in every direction.
Roughly 160 kilometers northwest of Seattle, the San Juan Islands are made up of more than 172 named islands and reefs. The most frequently visited islands are the four with ferry service: Lopez, Orcas, San Juan and Shaw. One of world’s best whale-watching destinations, the San Juan Islands have their fair share of attractions on land, too, with peaceful beaches and meadows to explore on bike or foot, and numerous art galleries to meander through.
Start in Seattle
Since Seattle is the gateway city to the islands, first spend at a day or two exploring this eclectic city. While you shouldn’t miss going to the top of the Space Needle or watching the fishmongers throw fish at Pike Place Market, consider also taking in larger-than-life waterfront art at the Olympic Sculpture Park and touring the city’s subterranean passages on the Underground Tour of Seattle.
Road tripping from Seattle to the “San Juans,” as the islands are known, is half of the fun. It takes less than two hours to drive to the Washington State Ferries terminal in Anacortes. Make a small detour on Interstate Highway 5 North to marvel at the 8.5-meter-wide Deception Pass Bridge, one of the state's most photographed wonders, then get back on State Route 20 to Anacortes. You may take your car aboard the ferry or simply walk on. Either way, carry your camera onboard, too. The views are breathtaking and you might even see a whale or seal. Ferry captains usually announce when wildlife is in view. There are ferry stops at four islands: Lopez, Orcas, Shaw and San Juan. During the busiest season, from April to October, be sure to make a reservation.
Don’t have a car? The San Juans are easily reachable from downtown Seattle via the Victoria Clipper, which offers daily passenger-only ferry service to Friday Harbor on San Juan Island from mid-May to early October. Day trips and overnight trips are available, with and without whale watching itineraries.
Stay in the gateway city of Seattle for a couple days to see attractions like the EMP Museum and the Space Needle before traveling to the San Juan Islands.
Which Island Should You Visit?
Each island has its own personality. The most-visited island is San Juan, with Friday Harbor dotted with charming restaurants and shops.
Lush Orcas Island has a thriving art scene and numerous hiking paths at Moran State Park.
The least hilly of the San Juans, Lopez Island is a bicycler’s paradise. Bring your own or rent bikes from Lopez Bicycle Works or Village Cycles.
About 20 square kilometers, Shaw is the smallest of the four San Juan Islands served by Washington State Ferries, making it a low-key day trip. On Shaw, picnic at the University of Washington’s Cedar Rock Preserve or visit the working farm run by nuns at Our Lady of the Rock Monastery.
A seal comes out to play in Friday Harbor on San Juan Island.
Watch the Whales
To get a glimpse of killer whales, also known as orcas, visit the San Juans from May to October, when the salmon runs are strongest. The mammals preferred food is the area’s Chinook salmon. While the orcas are the main draw, the onboard naturalists will point out the area’s other wildlife — including minke and humpback whales, porpoises, seals, otters and bald eagles — that can be spotted during the same time of year.
Thrill seekers should try whale-watching outfitters that offer Zodiac-style boats, similar to the inflatable ones that the Coast Guard uses for search-and-rescue missions. These allow for viewing of the wildlife at water level. For a more comfortable experience, stick to bigger boats where you can sip hot chocolate inside a heated cabin. You can even spot the orcas from land at Lime Kiln Point State Park, which is also home to an iconic lighthouse built in 1919.
Weather and When to Go
The San Juans lie in the Olympic Mountains “rain shadow” and enjoy an average of 247 days of sunshine and about half of the rainfall of Seattle. The islands have a temperate year-round climate, with average high temperatures rarely exceeding 24 degrees Celsius in the summer and about 7 degrees Celsius in the winter.
So pack your binoculars and get up close and personal with the natural wonders of the San Juans.